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The San Juan Star

In Need Of Democracy, Not Demagoguery

By: Herbert W. Brown III, Esq.

February 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Harrisburg Patriot. All rights reserved. 

One hesitates to dignify demagoguery with a response. As often as not, the demagogue will simply wrap himself in the cloak of victimization and cry "censorship". Still, there is a point at which someone has to say enough is enough.

When someone as distinguished as former Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh is labeled a "reactionary" (García Passalacqua, The San Juan Star Viewpoint, December 15, 2002), it is time to say that’s enough! I can not be silent when propaganda tactics are used to smear a great man who courageously, respectfully and accurately informs the citizens of the territories about the constitutional realities of the status resolution process.

Dick Thornburgh is a prominent leader in the legal profession and a public servant who has earned bipartisan respect in Washington and across the nation for his personal integrity. He also served in a senior post as a United Nations official, where his competence and sincerity won friends for Mr. Thornburgh around the world. As the elected Governor of a sovereign state, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and as U.S. Attorney General under both President Reagan and President Bush, he was a calming presence in a time of ideological confrontation. Dick Thornburgh is a man of genuine humility and compassion, and for decades he has been a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He also was President Bush’s lead man in the effort that resulted in the "Americans with Disabilities Act", a humanitarian milestone.

It was almost by historical accident that Mr. Thornburgh became involved in territorial affairs during U.S. Senate hearings on status legislation in 1991. Senator J. Bennett Johnston was chairman of the committee with jurisdiction for the territories, and he wanted the Justice Department to go on record with a constitutional analysis of Puerto Rico’s status options. Attorney General Thornburgh agreed to testify personally instead of sending a surrogate, and he prepared for the hearing the same way he would for a court appearance. He probably spent more time and became more knowledgeable on territorial law than any Attorney General in U.S. history.

As a private lawyer often invited to comment on political and legal issues, including self-determination for Puerto Rico, he consistently articulates fundamental principles with a legal analysis that is clear and sound. Thornburgh’s position on status was forged in the crucible of Congressional hearings, when he did not have the luxury of exploring nuances of status doctrine. While many who are considered experts were able to theorize about possible new models for territorial self-government during the Cold War "freeze" on full and final status resolution, Mr. Thornburgh had to go to the constitutional bottom line in defining status alternates before Congress. The Citizens’ Educational Foundation-US has occasionally commissioned Mr. Thornburgh to provide his independent assessment on status issues, and he has never failed to base his legal analysis on the U.S. Constitution rather than any personal opinion about status.

By doing that then and now, Thornburgh has done a great service to Puerto Rico and the whole nation. Even those who have a different agenda, a different ideology, or a different legal position should treat him with the same respect he brings to the issue of self-determination for his fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.

It is not uncommon for local media celebrities to practice a degree of demagoguery, engage in name-calling, or make claims that can not be verified. We see that every day in the anything-goes world of talk radio and tabloid press. It is one thing to be clever and entertaining at the expense of one’s own journalistic credibility, but it is quite another thing to distort facts and engage in personal attacks on reputable people. A lot of people have been biting their tongues for a long time as the political and legal realities of the status resolution process for Puerto Rico have been twisted to sensationalize rather than enlighten.

However, commentaries based on character assassination and delusional fantasies about "secret" Washington intrigues cross the line. Columns and broadcasts that send half-truths and scatological personal insults into the public domain indiscriminately are like the random firing of weapons in the air during New Year celebrations. In both cases, it is uncivil, reckless, irresponsible, and innocent people get hurt. You can’t romanticize crudeness, cruelty, or insults to the common sense and wisdom of the people. The cultural condescension of talking heads signifies nothing but intellectual vanity and contempt for the people whose destiny is being trivialized by propaganda.

The quest for the truth is demeaned and the pursuit of democracy is impeded by the kind of demagoguery we sometimes see in Puerto Rico. We don’t need to censor demagogues, we just need to show them for what they are, and expose the fallacies in their diatribes. Dick Thornburgh does that honorably and honestly with malice toward none, and his intellectual courage is renowned. Thus, pathetic name-calling will not stop him from speaking the truth plainly to his fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.

*Herbert W. Brown III is an attorney in San Juan, President of the Citizens’ Educational Foundation-US, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to the decolonization of Puerto Rico based in Washington, D.C. You may access the web site at

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